Be a "Sunfish Expert:" A Simple Guide for Identifying your Small Catches

Hello, Readers!

Lately, I've seen a lot of people having trouble with fish identification. Identifying fish can be a very painful process depending on the Species of fish being identified. After all, what is the difference between a Spotted Bass and a Largemouth Bass? How about the difference between a Satinfin Shiner and a Spotfin Shiner? Channel Catfish and White Catfish?

The truth is: those are difficult Species to identify! Even for professionals, fish identification can be hard to achieve at times. As an angler with a photo of an "unknown" Species of fish to him/her, the first step is usually to search the Internet and see if there's an online photo that matches his/her photo (and that's when people learn that not everything can be "googled"). Then, sometimes, the person can end up in frustration because not a single photo matches his catch!

For this reason, I've decided to write a little post on "Sunfish Identification."

For many anglers, a "Sunfish" is simply defined as a "Sunny." When asking for what they have caught, I've heard this sentence from many anglers already: "Hmm...only a couple Sunnies." But what exactly are those "Sunnies?" Are they all the same Species of fish? What about their different coloration? Are they Bluegills? Are they something else?

In reality, the Sunfish family (Centrarchidae) is composed of many different types of fish: the Largemouth Bass, Smallmouth Bass, Spotted Bass, Rock Bass, Green Sunfish, Bluegill, Pumpkinseed, Redear Sunfish, Redbreast Sunfish, Longear Sunfish, Warmouth, Mud Sunfish, Banded Sunfish, Blackbanded Sunfish, Bluespotted Sunfish, White Crappie, Black Crappie, etc. Some of them appear to be the same in terms of shape and color, but they turn out to be different Species of fish!

Being a Multi-Species type of angler, there's nothing more rewarding than catching a new Species of fish! Even for the anglers that do not focus on Species hunting, it's still nice to catch a fish that they have never caught before and be able to identify that fish.

Therefore, this guide will focus on the five most common different types of Sunfish in the Philadelphia and South New Jersey area: the Bluegill (most known by kids and adults alike), the Pumpkinseed, the Redbreast Sunfish, the Green Sunfish, and the Rock Bass (least known).

I'll also use my personal photos to portray them! When "googled," hand-drawn pictures of the fish show up most of the times. Those pictures are a generalization of the Species represented, but they do not portray every single fish in every single body of water (that is simply impossible). Coloration, for example, is a dependent variable: some Bluegills may be darker in muddy bodies of water whereas others can be lighter in clearer water. Some fish may be colored differently than others of the same Species because it's spawning season for them (mating depends on water temperature, and water temperature varies from place to place), and so on.

The video above portrays all the different types of Sunfish covered on this post: the Bluegill (Lepomis macrochirus), the Pumpkinseed (Lepomis gibbosus), the Green Sunfish (Lepomis cyanellus), and the Redbreast Sunfish (Lepomis auritus). The four of them together are considered to be the "Sunfish Superfecta" in Philadelphia. The video also portrays Rock Bass (Ambloplites rupestris), Smallmouth Bass (Micropterus dolomieu), and Largemouth Bass (Micropterus salmoides). The best part? All fishes in the video came from the same body of water -- the mighty Neshaminy Creek! 

The first factor in identifying Sunfish is the body shape:
After successfully landing your catch, place it in your hand. If the body of the fish (not counting the tail part) is longer than rounder (Type 1 - Ellipse/Oval), it fits better as a Green Sunfish or Rock Bass. If the fish is rounder than longer (Type 2 - Oval/Circular), it fits better as a Bluegill or Pumpkinseed. The Redbreast Sunfish, on the other hand, could be either Type 1 or Type 2 (see pictures of Redbreast Sunfish, below), proving that body shape isn't enough for identifying a fish. It is, however, a very useful hint!

And that's when the 2nd factor comes in: coloration. Each Species of Sunfish have their own body colors, and that's what defines them the most.


Note: Click on the pictures for magnification.

Bluegill #1 - Concourse Lake, June 12th, 2013.

Bluegill #2 - Kirkwood Lake, April 15th, 2012.

Bluegill #3 - Delaware River, June 18th, 2013.

Notes and observations:

- All three of them are oval/circular body shaped and have a small mouth opening.

- A very strong blue-shaded operculum is a typical physical characteristic of a Bluegill (#1 and #3)! #2 also has one; however, due to the age of the fish (youngest among three), this trait is not as strong yet.

- #2 has a very strong striped pattern on its body, another typical physical characteristic of a Bluegill. #1 and #3 have a fairly uniform color distribution with faded striped patterns. The reason is mainly due to the clarity of the water: Concourse Lake is heavy on vegetation, which could explain the "green" on the Bluegill's body. Kirkwood is clear when there's no rain, explaining why #2 is light-colored. The Delaware River, on the other hand, is always muddy, explaining why #3 is darker.

- Bluegills tend to have a black-shaded spot at the end of the soft dorsal fin. Sometimes they are hard to spot (like in #1) due to many different environmental factors (i.e. water clarity and water quality).


Note: Click on the pictures for magnification.

Pumpkinseed #1 - Schuylkill River, September 15th, 2012.

Pumpkinseed #2 - Delaware River, June 20th, 2013.

Pumpkinseed #3 - Pennypack Creek, September 5th, 2011.

Notes and observations:

- Even though all three of them were caught in different years, they all have oval/circular body shape, small mouth openings, and a strip of red on the opercular flaps.

- Blue-colored "rays" throughout the operculum is a prime characteristic of a Pumpkinseed. In the Philadelphia and South Jersey area, only Pumpkinseeds and Longear Sunfish have them, and they can be distinguished by many other color factors. This trait is least seen on #3 - the water at Pennypack Creek is clear, which could explain why the fish is so light. #2, on the other hand, has the strongest rays - the Delaware River is muddy, meaning that the fish should be darker, not to mention that #2 was also in "spawning mode" (brighter colors to attract more mates).

- Shades of orange/blue/yellow are common in Pumpkinseeds. The "dots" definitely give them away. The color density varies with water clarity, amount of vegetation present, and water quality.

Redbreast Sunfish:

Note: Click on the pictures for magnification.

Redbreast Sunfish #1 - Wissahickon Creek, May 20th, 2012.

Redbreast Sunfish #2 - Pennypack Creek, April 10th, 2013.

Redbreast Sunfish #3 - Byberry Creek, May 6th, 2013.

Notes and observations:

- Even though they are all Redbreast Sunfish, their body shapes differ dramatically. #1 has a oval/circular body shape; #2 has a ellipse/oval shape; and #3 is in-between.

- All three Redbreast Sunfish have a medium sized mouth (enough to hit a 3 inch Senko), a red/orange colored belly, a long and black operculum flap (prime physical characteristic), orange dots that range from the pectoral fin to the caudal fin, and shades of orange and red on their soft dorsal fin and caudal fin.

- Since Redbreast Sunfish tend to live in Creeks and Streams, where water clarity is best, their coloration doesn't vary a lot. It makes their identification a little bit easier.

Green Sunfish:

Note: Click on the pictures for magnification.

Green Sunfish #1 - Pennypack Creek, April 10th, 2013.

Green Sunfish #2 - Tacony Creek, May 2nd, 2013.

Green Sunfish #3 - Concourse Lake, June 12th, 2013.

Notes and observations:

- All Green Sunfish have Blue-dotted stripes throughout their bodies. They also have a large mouth opening, broken blue rays in their operculum, and an elliptical/oval shaped body (#3 is a little bit circular because it's full of eggs).

- The coloration of the Green Sunfish varies dramatically and depends on seasons. They usually have white/yellow pelvic fins all year long; however, they will have yellow/white marks on their soft dorsal, pelvic, anal, and caudal fins during spawning seasons (which is the case of #3).

Rock Bass:

Note: Click on the pictures for magnification.

Rock Bass #1 - Wissahickon Creek, May 4th, 2013.

Rock Bass #2 - Schuylkill River, May 17th, 2013.

Rock Bass #3 - Neshaminy Creek, May 12th, 2013.

Notes and observations:

- All of the Rock Bass above have an elliptical/oval built, a large mouth opening, as well as red eyes and black-dotted stripes throughout their bodies.

- Another prime physical characteristic lies in the black shades on their anal fin. They are fairly easy to distinguish; however, not all of them have all the traits that a Rock Bass is supposed to have.

- Since Rock Bass tend to live near rocky structures and other types of cover, they have similar habitats in every body of water. Therefore, their colors don't vary a lot.


For amateurs and people new to the sport, identifying fish is certainly a challenge. However, keep in mind that even the "pros" and veteran anglers can have a hard time identifying fish as well!

If you don't believe me, give it a try below. Now that you know the prime characteristics of all 5 most common Sunfishes around these areas, how about trying to identify the fishes below?

Some of them are hybrids (a breed between two different Species), others are pure-breed, others are just hard to identify! Look at their pictures carefully and try to point out which physical traits make them be what they are. If its a hybrid, point out the two Species in it. If you send me in your answers (, I'll send you the answers. Good luck!

Haddon Lake

Ridley Park Lake

Neshaminy Creek

Upper Cooper River

Upper Cooper River

Audubon Lake

Pennypack Creek

Neshaminy Creek

Dinosaur Lake

Schuylkill River

Driscoll Pond

Schuylkill River

Upper Cooper River

Tacony Creek

Wissahickon Creek

Dinosaur Lake

Dinosaur Lake

Tacony Creek

Schuylkill River

Kirkwood Lake

Best of luck for all of us!

Long Days and Pleasant Nights,


Leo S.